Elizabeth Warren Is Marginalized Americans’ Best Hope

After last night’s debate, there’s no question she’d make the best president

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

EElizabeth Warren is working to prove herself. After a summer spent as a top-tier candidate, she’s had two losses in a row — in Iowa, she came in third behind the first-place tie between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg; in New Hampshire, she failed to get any delegates. Heading into the Nevada caucus, pundits all but wrote her off. Yet in last night’s Democratic debate, Warren came roaring back from oblivion with a fiery and widely applauded performance, which seems to indicate that she has no intention of quietly retreating from the arena. If her window is closing, then she seems determined to spend it making the best possible case for herself.

There’s obvious sexism at play in the pressure on Warren: namely, that women must constantly outperform expectations in order to be seen as competent. Warren’s third-place finish in Iowa is framed as an abject failure, yet people still take Joe Biden seriously after not just his disastrous finishes thus far but also his two prior failed presidential runs. Warren’s been solid; she needs to be spectacular. And last night she was on fire.

It’s also true that Warren has struggled to communicate her vision to the American public. Her competitors excel at evoking feelings: The righteous rage of Sanders, the good-old-days nostalgia of Biden, or the smooth, featureless, vaguely Obamanian pleasantness of Buttigieg all have their own appeal. Warren’s appeal has been in the nerdy details: wealth taxes, debt cancellation, off-the-cuff lectures on the constitutionality of the 18th-century carriage tax.

As such, it’s easy to dismiss Warren as a pencil-pusher or cast her as a soulless, managerial technocrat. Yet to do so would be to ignore her platform. Warren is not an ideologue. She is not a reassuring, white, male moderate promising a way back to the good old days. She is something far more complex, and potentially more transformative: An idealist who knows how to negotiate hard realities, a woman with the compassion to help, the intelligence to know what’s needed, and a deep understanding of how the office of the presidency can be used to deliver real benefits to the people. She is the hardest candidate to reduce to a slick, emotionally appealing brand, yet she is also the candidate who’s shown the most real aptitude for the job of president.

And last night she showed she’s able to twist the knife like no other. “Blood and teeth,” her campaign tweeted out Thursday morning, signaling it plans to leave it on all the floor.

A Warren plan is often a small policy adjustment that triggers a fundamental rebalancing of power.

Warren, like Sanders, belongs to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Thanks to the fractured state of the American left, their differences are either vast and irreconcilable or totally meaningless, depending on whom you ask. Plenty of ink has been spilled on their respective labels (Sanders is a “socialist” and Warren is a “liberal”) but in practice, both espouse a similar brand of muscular, New Deal progressivism. There are differences in their theories of government — Sanders aims to govern by popular uprising, saying that his plan to enact free college (among other things) entails getting a “million young people” to march outside Mitch McConnell’s window; Warren believes in using the tools of the state in smart ways to accomplish specific ends — but both ultimately want to undertake large-scale structural approaches to stem rising economic inequality, and both see themselves as defenders of working people against predatory oligarchs. Their key difference lies in how they think about who those “working people” are.

Sanders believes he can redefine the Democratic base by bringing in working-class white people; specifically, he targets and performs well with working-class white men. This entails pivoting from charged identity issues, like reproductive or LGBTQ+ rights, to focus on supposedly more “unifying” programs like Medicare for All. The ideal Sanders policy presents itself as faceless and nonspecific — everyone gets to go to college, everyone gets health care, etc. — in the hopes that bigoted voters will vote in their own self-interest without noticing they’ve also helped people they hate. There’s not much evidence that people vote this way, and plenty of evidence that they don’t — one 2018 study shows that white Americans increasingly oppose welfare programs that would benefit them simply because those programs also benefit black people — but the idea of a united, brotherly working class carries its own romantic appeal.

Warren also backs universal health care and free college, and many of her proposed initiatives — like breaking up tech monopolies or instituting lobbying bans to prevent government corruption — are not based in identity politics. But, more than any other candidate, her plans to help “working people’’ tend to take into account which working people she is helping, and what those people need. A Warren plan is often a small policy adjustment that triggers a fundamental rebalancing of power — universal childcare for the rising numbers of women being edged out of the workforce by its heavy cost, or housing subsidies to combat the cumulative impact of racist redlining policies. This isn’t the “incremental change” of mainstream liberalism, nor is it merely symbolic “identity politics” — it is real material redistribution, but done in a targeted and nuanced way, so as to help the most vulnerable with their most urgent needs.

Warren understands the difference between “equality” and “equity.” If Timmy has one dollar, and Sally has 79 cents, giving them both a dollar leaves Timmy richer at the end of the day. The fundamental inequalities of gender, sexual identity, or race are not distractions from capitalism—or side effects of it — they are their own deeply entrenched problems, which must be resolved before “universal” benefits can actually benefit everyone to the same degree.

Rather than focusing on potentially unpersuadable Trump voters, Warren has worked to engage and serve the people who are at the core of the Democratic Party, including the organizers whose work delivered the blue wave of 2018. She holds higher support from LGBTQ+ voters than any other candidate, and over half of her donors are women. (That latter distinction has been held by every female candidate except Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard. It’s clear that women deeply want to see a female candidate succeed.) Though she lags in support from voters of color, who largely back Sanders and Biden, she currently holds the top score on the Center for Urban Justice and Racial Equality’s presidential scorecard.

The other major candidates — Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg — all offer some version of the same “return to normalcy.” Any one of them would be better for marginalized people than Trump, but none would bring a true progressive vision to the White House. Only Warren and Sanders are offering anything like a transformative agenda, and of those two candidates, Warren’s agenda is more nuanced, more attuned to the specific needs of marginalized populations, and (this part is important) more likely to work. Sanders argues that he can overcome an intractable Republican Congress by channeling blunt-force populist anger, but anti-establishment figures tend to become establishment figures once they’re elected; the angry crowds that show up for Sanders at his rallies probably won’t show up in the same numbers when he’s three years into his first term and still hasn’t passed Medicare For All.

Warren’s proposals are not incremental or symbolic; as we saw last night, she wants to reshape American life and deliver material benefits to working people—all while holding the powerful to account at every level. But, though her proposals range from sweeping (canceling all student loan debt) to highly targeted (an executive order banning TSA agents from implementing screening practices that target transgender people) they are always made with an eye to attainability, designed to be implementable even in a hostile climate. Knowing how to press the buttons and levers of the state to achieve your own ends isn’t glamorous, but it is far more likely to actually reduce harm and alleviate people’s pain.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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